Damien Echols describes seeing his first sunset in almost twenty years.
Am I the only person on earth who had not, until last week, heard of the West Memphis Three? This buffoonish travesty of justice might have been comical if it had not resulted in the sentencing of two 18-year-olds to life, and a 19-year-old to Death Row, where he stayed in solitary confinement for 18 1/2 years in an Arkansas SuperMaxt.
"The West Memphis Three are three men who were tried and convicted as teenagers in 1994 of the 1993 murders of three boys in West Memphis, Arkansas. Damien Echols was sentenced to death, Jessie Misskelley, Jr. was sentenced to life imprisonment plus two 20-year sentences, and Jason Baldwin was sentenced to life imprisonment. During the trial, the prosecution asserted that the children were killed as part of a satanic ritual. A number of documentaries have been based on the case, and celebrities and musicians have held fund raisers in the belief that they are innocent.
In July 2007, new forensic evidence was presented in the case and a status report jointly issued by the State and the Defense team stated, "Although most of the genetic material recovered from the scene was attributable to the victims of the offenses, some of it cannot be attributed to either the victims or the defendants." On October 29, 2007, the defense filed a Second Amended Writ of Habeas Corpus, outlining the new evidence.
Following a successful decision in 2010 by the Arkansas Supreme Court regarding newly produced DNA evidence, the West Memphis Three reached a deal with prosecutors. On August 19, 2011, they entered Alford pleas, which allow them to assert their innocence while acknowledging that prosecutors have enough evidence to convict them. Judge David Laser accepted the pleas and sentenced the three to time served. They were released with ten-year suspended sentences, having served 18 years and 78 days in prison."
HBO made a three-part documentary on the case called Paradise Lost (only Parts 1 (The Childhood Murders at Robin Hood Hills: 1996) and 2 (Revelations: 2000) are out on netflix. Here's the trailer for Part 3 (Purgatory: 2011):
Touching side note: NYC landscape architect Lorri Davis saw Paradise Lost in early 1996, was appalled/inspired/intrigued, and wrote Damien Echols in jail. The two fell in love and were married on December 3, 1999, while he was still on Death Row. She fought tirelessly for his release. This NYTimes story documents their romance. Along with Peter Jackson (also a tireless promoter of the movement to free the WM3), Echols and Davis produced the recent documentary, West of Memphis, which was directed by Amy Berg, premiered this year at Sundance, and has been picked up by Sony Pictures Classics.
Even as a 19-year-old with a botched Boy George haircut, Echols (who was convicted largely on the basis of the fact that he listened to Metallica, wore black, and once doodled the name Aleister Crowley, along with others, on a notepad) far outshone anyone involved in the case (with the possible exception of his co-defendants), exhibiting way more courage, duende and class than the investigating officers, D.A., and definitely the judge. One of the most remarkable aspects of the case is that the boys became men in jail (Jason Baldwin recounts that he was arrested on his last day of tenth grade: his mother brought his report card to jail and showed it to him through the bars) and by men, I mean real men, who understand what happened to them, are continuing to fight to exonerate themselves, and have seemingly no bitterness, no hatred, no trash talk. They're grateful and, considering what they endured, they're grounded almost beyond imagination. People from around the world fought for their cause and it's easy to see why.
|JESSIE MISSKELLEY, THEN AND NOW|
|JASON BALDWIN, THEN AND NOW|
"We were the bottom of the barrel," says Echols. "Poor white trash." It's hard to know who to feel worse for: the parents of the 8-year-olds--Stevie Branch, Michael Moore, and Christopher Byers--who were brutally murdered; or the parents of the innocent boys--truly, they were boys themselves--who saw their sons convicted, exiled, shunned by the community without a single piece of physical evidence linking them to the crime scene. To have no money for a decent defense. To no doubt be shunned themselves.
In one scene, shortly after the three have been arrested, Misskelly's father is talking to his then girlfriend. She says, "If Jessie done what they said he done, I ain't havin nothin more to do with im. I wouldn't send him a nickel." The father says stubbornly, "I would." "I wouldn't even send him a pack of cigarettes," the girlfriend continues. "I would," says the father. "Nope," the girlfriend presses on, "nor even a pack of cigarettes." "I will send him a pack of cigarettes," the father says. "That's my flesh and blood. That's my son."